Is it an accident that school lunches are so heavy on cheese and meat? No. The National School Lunch program, enacted in 1946, was devised with two goals in mind. The first was to subsidize farmers by purchasing huge blocs of "excess" commodities in order to keep prices up. Only secondarily did the government intend to help feed hungry children. Subsidies are, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, the closest thing to immortal life in this world. So while America's children were getting heavier and heavier, particularly low-income children, federal programs continued to heap pizza, French fries, and cheeseburgers onto their plates.
There have been episodic and quixotic efforts to kill the subsidies. In 2007, Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.; and Ron Kind, D-Wis., offered an amendment to the farm bill that would have reduced subsidies for unhealthy commodities like meat and cheese, cut subsidies to millionaire farmers, and increased funding for nutritional services to poor children. But Speaker Pelosi, fearing that her farm state members would pay a political price, urged a "no" vote.
Some 30 million American children (about 83 percent of the total) eat subsidized school lunches in America's schools, though only 17.4 million are low income. Mrs. Obama's reform will increase spending on the grounds that healthy foods are more expensive than unhealthy ones. But $2.2 billion of the $4.5 cost of the new program is to be offset by reductions in the Food Stamp program. Bad idea.
The amount of all of this food that winds up uneaten in the trash can only be guessed at (though anecdotal evidence abounds). Wouldn't it make more sense, economically, nutritionally, and (importantly) socially to eliminate school lunches altogether? Parents can pack a highly nutritious turkey, tuna, or peanut butter sandwich with an apple or an orange. Poor parents can afford to do this with help from the Food Stamp program. The older kids can pack their own lunches. (A child who repeatedly showed up at school without lunch would receive attention from child protective services.) Most of the parent-supervised lunches would be superior in nutrition and taste to anything the government could serve (some kids might even find an affectionate note from mom or dad in their lunch boxes). But more importantly, the principle that parents are responsible for their children would be ratified.